Food

How Toho, the Philippines' Oldest Restaurant, Plans to Conquer 100 More Years

The owners actually don't know what exact year the restaurant opened.
IMAGE courtesy of Toho Antigua
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Here’s the thing about agethe older you get, the less you remember. If you don’t record your story, chances are you’ll forget many milestones in your life. Such is the case of Toho Antigua, the country’s oldest restaurant, located in Binondo, Manila. Over a century old, Toho’s legacy has been passed on from generation to generation, but the passage of time has led to a few revisions along the way.

“Actually Toho’s just a name,” says owner Alvin Wong. “It has no meaning.” Wong is referring to a wrongly published definition of Toho, which said that the name means “just enough.” In Hokkien, it’s the word “tuho” that translates to “just enough;” not “Toho,” which is the name of the restaurant. 

Toho's first restaurant in the south is located on President's Avenue in BF Homes.

Photo by courtesy of Toho Antigua.
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It’s quite easy to make up stories about Toho, as its humble beginnings go so far back that nobody around today can verify their accuracy. Toho’s store sign says it’s been around “Since 1888.” However, food historian Felice Prudente Sta. Maria, in her 2006 book The Governor-General’s Kitchen: Philippine Culinary Vignettes and Period Recipes, 1521–1935, wrote that the restaurant “Antigua” had been founded by Manuel “Po Kong” Bautista two decades earlier, in 1866. If this is true, Toho has already reached its sesquicentennial, at 153 years old.

Wong, a third-generation owner, admits to not remembering the exact date the restaurant ended up with his family, either. “My grandfather used to work for this group of Chinese [who owned Toho], but I’m not very sure what year it was,” he says. “When [the group] decided to go back to China, they asked my grandfather if he wanted to buy them out.”

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Toho has been in Binondo for over a century.

Photo by courtesy of Toho Antigua

His grandfather agreed to buy what was then known as Toho Antigua Panciteria, and since then, it has been a major part of their family. Wong has been involved with Toho since he was a little boy, “around 10 or even younger,” as his father would bring him to the original Binondo space and put him to work. “I’d be cleaning the tables, serving the customers,” he says. “That was way back maybe [in the] '70s.”

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“It’s just the Chinese way to help out in the business. 'Di nakailangan pang sabihan pa,” Wong says. He eventually became the owner and was very hands-on with the operations. He manned the cash register and greeted every guest that came in. “Lahat ng customers, nakakausap ko,” he says. “I noticed that most of them are from [the] Las Piñas, Parañaque, Muntinlupa, and Laguna areas.”

Seeing an opportunity, Wong decided to scout the south of Metro Manila for potential new locations. In January 2000, he opened Toho Restaurant Antigua on President’s Avenue in BF Homes, Parañaque. He says it was too far to go back and forth between Manila and Parañaque, so he decided to live in BF, in a room  on the second floor of Toho.

To adapt to the highly discriminating south market—Wong describes it as “close-open,” as restaurants in the area usually last for only around three to five yearsToho got a makeover, adding more design elements to its space compared to the simpler-looking Binondo branch. The result was a more stylized version of its predecessor, with light-colored walls turning a rich reddish brown, dark wood tables replacing the plain white ones, and a massive asado counter, which used to sit up front, now pushed to the back. It was made to look like an old Chinese stall from the old days, tiled roof and all.  

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Toho's Spicy Squid is one of the few dishes not from the original "since 1888" menu.
Photo by Monique Therese Avila

Despite these changes, Toho’s menu remains mostly the same. Many of the dishes have been with the restaurant since the beginning, and the consistently jam-packed seats indicate that they taste just as good now as they did back then.

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Cold cuts like asado have been on the menu for years. The slices of sweetened pork are garnished with thinly cut papaya and sweet sauce for extra flavor.

The signature stir-fried noodles of the Pancit Canton is smothered with a thick, savory sauce that gives it its addicting taste. Pork, veggies, and seafood are generously distributed on top, making for a complete meal.

Toho is generous with its Lumpia Shanghai, as well. Unlike other lumpias, which are thin and made up of around 80 percent wrapper, this one is thick and meaty, with the thin wrap fried well enough to result in a satisfying crunch.

Beef with Ampalaya is a Toho classic, equal parts savory and bitter.
Photo by Monique Therese Avila.
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But the owners didn’t leave the menu completely untouched. To keep up with the times, they added dishes here and there at the request of their customers. Spicy Squid was added to the menu in the '90s after Alvin tried it in another restaurant and found it delicious. “It was dry,” Wong recalls. “So I collaborated with my cook and we came up with this dish. [Now] it has become one of our top sellers.”

Toho’s leche flan is actually Wong’s wife Nikki’s recipe, and was added to the roster around 10 to 15 years ago. “Kaya yan na-add kasihinahanapsiya ng tao,” Nikki says. “Every time nagagawa kami ng leche flan, lagingnabebenta. So di nanamintinanggal.”

Nikki has been integral to Toho’s expansion in the south. She credits her experience as a flight attendant in Cebu Pacific in helping improve operations. “Ini-imagine ko nasa loob ako ng eroplano,” she explains. “Paano ba kami gumalawsa loob ng eroplano? That’s how I studied it and came up with [the staff’s daily tasks].”

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Nikki and Alvin met in 2002 through her cousin, who was one of Toho’s loyal customers. They married in 2003, living for a year on the second floor of the restaurant until they moved out in 2004. But it was only in 2013, when Toho Restaurant Antiguarenamed Toho Antigua for brevityopened its second south location in SM BF that Nikki joined the family business.

Toho's timeless Steamed Fish Fillet with Toasted Garlic.
Photo by Monique Therese Avila.
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Today, with four restaurants in the south, Nikki’s eye for organization and people managementshe’s in charge of recruitment, training, and the crewhas definitely helped lighten the load for Alvin. While he used to be at  the restaurant all day long, now he works from an office in their Alabang Hills home. He and Nikki look over the day-to-day reports with their staff and check on the customer hotline regularly to see if there are any complaints that need resolving.

“What we are trying to focus on is customer service,” Nikki says. “All [things] equal, we want Toho to be known not just for its good food, but also for its service.” Alvin, a self-described people person, has built strong relationships with his loyal customers. “First two years ko dito, practically every single customer kinakausap ko,” he says. “Every single table, I talk to them, I visit, I’d drop by their table.”

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The Wongs credit their customers for Toho’s longevity. Families who followed them all the way from Binondo and regulars in the south have remained loyal to Toho, helping the south branches grow and thrive for almost two decades now. Alvin’s kind and friendly demeanor have endeared him to many customers, and he has become quite the fixture in their lives. Nikki says they would get invites to weddings, baptisms, even funerals of customers and their families. “Everywhere we go, may nakakakilalasakanya,” she adds.

Cold cuts, like this asado, are always a crowd favorite.
Photo by Monique Therese Avila.
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Toho’s fame also attracts the rich and famous, making the restaurant one of the select few that serves all social classes. “When I first met him,” Nikki narrates, “[I asked] sino ba yung target market mo? [Alvin said] wala! Lahat yan market ko.” Celebrities, athletes such as Manny Pacquiao, socialites such as Tingting Cojuangco, and politicians including Loren Legarda and Serge Osmeña, have all ventured down south to get a taste of Toho.

At the end of the day, Toho’s main goal is to make the customers happy. “To see that the customers are satisfied,” Alvin says. “I think that’s the most rewarding.” Spend time with the Wongs and they’ll enthusiastically tell you story after story about their various customers, from the family from Biñan that visits every week, to the concerned diners who worried about its six-month renovation in 2017, and that one applicant who shared her parents’ wedding was held at the Binondo branch.

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The couple admits inheriting a legacy is challenging. They weren't around for much of Toho's storied past, which makes it hard for them to remember. But after decades in the business, they now have stories of their own to add to the books. Toho’s legacy is enriched by its customers, who came to satisfy their hunger and perhaps feed their nostalgia and stayed for the dedicated service and warm company. For the Wongs, as long as they have their customers, working with a century’s worth of heritage will never get old.

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About The Author
Monique Therese Avila
Monique Therese Avila is a self-proclaimed woman-child with a lifelong obsession with chocolate. Her attempts at staying fit are hampered by her part-time gig as a professional food taster.
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